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“The Apprentice,” airing Thursdays on NBC, has rapidly become one of TV’s top-rated shows. Even a casual viewing of pretty much any episode makes it clear why: it’s “Survivor: New York.”
The show comes by the rip-off honestly: Mark Burnett is the executive producer of both shows, so at least he’s duplicating a format that he created himself, and tweaking it so that it works in an urban business setting. But all the changes Burnett has made to the format in order to differentiate “The Apprentice” from “Survivor” have actually yielded an unexpected result: they’ve made “The Apprentice” into the better show.
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“Survivor” was a European reality import that came to North America in the summer of 2000 on CBS, and became an instant hit. The show took the structural tropes of “The Real World” (interviews, confessionals, pensive establishing shots) and put them to use in the service of a game, adding weekly eliminations and a big cash prize at the end.
Even when CBS boldly scheduled it opposite NBC’s sitcom juggernaut “Friends,” “Survivor” more than held its own, and still earns top ten Nielsen ratings. It’s now so firmly established that, in its current eighth season, it’s gathered contestants from past seasons to assemble “Survivor: All-Stars.” (Cheapening the word “star” by using it to describe washed-up former reality-show participants, but never mind that.)
The fun of “Survivor” lies not in the lame challenges, nor in elements and starvation and bugs. If we were interested in the particulars of building shelters out of scrap material, any of us could just go down to the junkyard and do it ourselves.
Instead, the drama of “Survivor” arises from the players' ever-shifting alliances, and the ways in which they are able to get away with blatant lies in their efforts to win a million dollars. Though disguised in brightly colored buffs and marooned away from the rest of civilization, the real subject of “Survivor” is humanity, and the ways in which people will trade theirs away for the chance to win big money.
“The Apprentice” — due, no doubt, to Mark Burnett’s involvement in both projects — takes the “Survivor” basics: start with teams of eight (“tribes” on “Survivor,” and “corporations” on “The Apprentice”); pit teams against each other in challenges; require the losing team to pay for its failure by losing a member (at tribal council on “Survivor,” and in the boardroom on “The Apprentice”).
Trump trumps ProbstIt’s in the differences, however, that the genius of “The Apprentice” really shines through. Start with Donald Trump. Who would have predicted that the famously flashy real-estate developer would be the breakout TV star of 2004?
Trump is involved because the winner of “The Apprentice” will end up with a year’s contract working for The Donald in one of his many companies, and a salary of $250,000. Therefore, it behooves the players to play up to him and feed his super-sized ego.
The show’s producers must have calculated to within a decimal point the precise amount of Trump that the show needs in order for us to be on his side — faintly disgusted by the toadying Apprentices, yet amused by their Smithers-like sycophancy. If the show had a higher Trump quotient, his smug attitude and incomprehensible coif would probably drive viewers away.
“Survivor” also has a likable host — the fiercely dimpled Jeff Probst — who has grown increasingly snarky to the contestants over the years (his contemptuous dismissal of big quitter Osten last season was one of his finest moments). As Trump does in the boardroom, Probst presides over tribal council and asks the contestants pointed questions about their tribemates in order to raise issues the players want to conceal.
But ultimately, it’s not Probst’s decision which players get the boot, so Survivors can evade his inquiries with slippery answers. On “The Apprentice,” players aren’t eliminated by their colleagues, but by Trump, which makes for much more satisfying TV. An Apprentice can try to put one over on Trump, but it seldom works; the players here are held much more accountable for their actions and attitudes than the Survivors are.
“The Apprentice” has refined the process as to which players are eligible for elimination by adding the post of “project manager.” In each episode, each team selects a new PM, whose job it is to direct the team in their task. If the team loses, the PM is automatically up for elimination — and must choose two other teammates to face the axe with him or her.
Thus a whole new set of interpersonal politics come into play. On “Survivor,” players routinely go after those they think are stronger, smarter, better leaders, more agile, or more popular than themselves, clearing an easy path to the final two. But on “The Apprentice,” the PM will want to take with them the players they think are weak. The PM must also be able to argue, to Trump’s satisfaction, that others have performed worse than they themselves. As the pool of contestants gets smaller, the players who are left are, by and large, smarter than their departed brothers and sisters.
Finally, “The Apprentice” also benefits from its urban, business setting. It can be hard to empathize with the Survivors, since most of us can’t conceive of sitting around a tropical island all day in a bikini, getting baked by the sun and eaten by insects. But many more of us have been marooned in an office environment at some point in our lives, trying to distinguish ourselves from our fellows in front of a capricious boss, and pitted against one another in completing tasks that seemed meaningless in the long run.
Those viewers who work among shrill, buzzword-spouting business-school types every day can chuckle at “The Apprentice” in recognition of their irritating habits. Those who don’t can use the show as a window on that world, relieved that the glass of the TV screen separates us from them just as surely as the glass at the zoo keeps us away from the boa constrictors.
As “The Apprentice” draws ever closer to the April 15th finale of its tremendously well-received first season, it remains to be seen whether Trump will choose the most deserving candidate for a job in his organization, or merely the one who is most skilled in sucking up to him.
But one thing is certain: it’s a lot more entertaining watching the Apprentices swallowing Trump’s abuse than it ever was watching the Survivors swallowing their moldy rice.
Tara Ariano co-created and co-edits and .